History is littered with true originals that never enjoy the levels of success reached by the artists they inspire. Most music fans have heard of The Lemonheads, R.E.M. and the Replacements. Fewer are familiar with Big Star, the power-pop trio they all site as a major influence.
The same can be said for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Primus, No Doubt, Living Colour, Sublime and the Roots — all of whom consider a lesser-known band a key strand of their DNA; a band that defies genres, broke color barriers and threw one hell of a party at ground zero.
That band is Fishbone.
Formed in 1979 under the original (and badass) name “Megatron,” by junior high students John Norwood Fisher (bass); his brother Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums); Angelo Moore, aka Dr. Madd Vibe (vocals, saxophones); Kendall Jones (guitar); “Dirty” Walter Kibby (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone and vocals), this self-described “disparate, all-black oddball crew” would quickly become a major force in the burgeoning LA club scene alongside the Chili Peppers and Thelonius Monster.
In an industry that prefers labels Fishbone defied one. Employing as many styles as members, the band fluidly meshed ska, hard rock, punk rock, funk and soul into the most hyperactive, eclectic sound on the Sunset Strip. Their first Columbia single, the aforementioned “Party At Ground Zero” turned a lot of heads and earned the band an opening slot on the Beastie Boys tour — not to mention a “much coveted” cameo in the Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon reunion movie, Back to the Beach.
Their first EP, Fishbone, and the full length album that followed, In Your Face, were well received, but if some fascist state decreed you could only have one Fishbone record in your collection you should get 1988’s Truth and Soul, which not only brought them critical acclaim but saw the band mature as musicians and songwriters. With guitarist Kendall Jones leading the charge to steer them away from their earlier frat-song party anthems the result is a harder edged, more powerful sound while still retaining the spontaneity and freshness of their debut.
Not many bands would have the balls to kick off a record with a cover, but when you come with a version of “Freddie’s Dead” this electrifying you don’t deprive the people. Blasphemy, but I’ll say it: It’s better than the Curtis Mayfield original.
Don’t bother catching your breath. Next is one of the band’s career defining songs, “Ma & Pa.” Norwood and Fish lay down a solid ska groove — a strong counterpoint to the darker subject matter of broken homes; an effective formula Fishbone would mine several times over in their career as they made a conscious effort to be more socially relevant and left leaning. Divorce never made you want to dance this much.
If “Ma & Pa” tackled trouble at home, “Subliminal Fascism” and “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” turned towards war in the streets while moving effortless through genres: from punk to ska to reggae. Regardless of genre or subject matter, Fishbone knows how to write hooks. “Question of Life” and “Bonin’ In The Boneyard” will have you humming the horn parts until someone physically removes them from your brain.
A look at their early tour mates proves exactly how hard they were to categorize: the Chili Peppers, The Dead Kennedys, George Clinton, the aforementioned Beastie Boys and more. And that just might have been their downfall. Perhaps, rather than be everything to everyone, they became not enough to too few; not metal enough for metalheads, not ska enough for the rude boys and not punk enough for the punks. Their follow-up, The Reality of My Surroundings, did fairly well, landing them on Saturday Night Live and MTV but Truth and Soul remains their creative, critical and commercial peak.
The story that follows is sad, but familiar. One by one, the founding members quit over everything from creative differences to dropping out of society to join a religious cult. Norwood and Angelo still tour under the Fishbone name, and likely sound incredible, but it is one of the great cosmic injustices that they are playing dive bars in Finland rather than arenas at home. “They should have been the band that went way beyond any of us that were influenced by them,” said Primus front man Les Claypool, in the tragic Fishbone documentary, Everyday Sunshine, which also features the praise of disciples such as Gwen Stefani, Flea, Branford Marsalis, Ice-T, Perry Farrell, ?uestlove and more.
I am sure John Cusack would agree: In the finished version of Say Anything, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is what comes out of Lloyd Dobler’s held-aloft boom box, but on the set he was actually blasting Fishbone.
Adam Freeman is the former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and Total Request Live. He is now the Creative Director of Thinkfactory Media. He tweets at @mradamfreeman.